Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Sometimes . . . You Have to Clean the Pipes

27 November 2011 Leave a comment

Back in October I was riding one of the night buses back home and it passed the main train station serving the city of Nice.  I looked out the bus window and through the autumn rain the clear bustle of a European train station.  I experienced a feeling of peace that makes you pause.  Yes, I am in a different place and it makes me happy.

Often we don’t take the time to appreciate happiness regardless of which corner of the Earth you choose to make as your ‘home’.  Your home is your home; no one else can force that upon you.  But we are all guilty of getting too distracted with our daily worries to realize that maybe happiness never left you; you left happiness.  Well that is too strong of a phrase.  Maybe ‘overlooked‘ happiness is a better way to understand these thoughts.  This past year has been filled with a lot of distractions for me.  These distractions haven’t been uniquely French nor American.  Everyone can relate.  The distractions of personal finances, taxes, work deadlines, catching the next bus to work and determining how to better budget your grocery list.  Then add the challenge of a linguistic barrier (of any kind) and those distractions hold a greater power over you.

Valley by Moutiers and lake Sainte Croix in the background.

Valley by Moutiers and lake Sainte Croix in the background.

I had to two small excursions that allowed me to clear my mind and appreciate this new land that I am calling home.  A couple of weeks ago, I drove over two hours to the village of Moustiers-Sainte Marie for the weekend.  A close friend has a family home there and it was available to us for a weekend getaway.  A classic French village perched on the side of a mountain and a flowing creek down the middle.  There was a charming chapel further up the mountain that has been a site for Christian pilgrims, past and present.  You can feel the history as you made the long journey to the top.   The stone steps were so smooth and slick from age that it was difficult to climb.  You look further up to see a golden star strung between two mountain peaks overlooking this village.  That star was a symbol of gratitude by a villager of a previous century who safely returned home after battling the Crusades in the Middle East.  In the afternoon we drove a little further to the beginning of the Gorges du Verdun; an amazing canyon holding its own geological patterns and vegetation.

The church, Notre Dame, overlooking Moustiers.

The church, Notre Dame, overlooking Moustiers.

The following weekend, I discovered another village a little to the north of Nice, Levens.  There this village proudly held a festival dedicated to Franz Listz, a master composer on the pianoforte.  Even though he wasn’t French by birth, he did spend a portion of his career in France among artistic peers such as Chopin and George Sand.  The motivation for this séjour (trip) was to listen to concert of classical, romanticism music.  Part of the program included an American singer, Amy Blake. A new companion who I can reminisce of expatriate dramas at the local Préfecture for obtaining the famous carte de séjour.  Again this village was postcard perfect and could not be replicated.  Small shops and brasseries near the village center with continuous water fountains that allowed the water to flow through the small streets and down into the valley below.  Levens proudly holds in its possession a pianoforte Érard dating back to Listz’s era of 1835.

This is France.  Authentically France.  Often the bling-bling of Nice can sometimes distract you from recognizing we are in France.  In these moments of experience, I can clear my head.  I have climbed another mountain to obtain a goal, a dream, a new reality.

Gorges du Verdon

Gorges du Verdon

Let’s flip the coin.  France is not paradise.  In Moustiers the one café had one cranky lady serving our boissons chauds (hot drinks).  Once we paid at the register and left, she came running out declaring that we cheated her out paying the bill in full.  Only few minutes later does her colleague yell out the door that in fact, we did pay for the bill in full.  There was no further discussion.  No apology was given either.  The next morning we were determined to have breakfast somewhere else than that café with the cranky woman.  Well in a tiny French village, there are limitations.  We had to go back because nothing else was open.  Even in Levens, after we did a quick exploration of the village before the concert we discovered similar limitations.  It was 18h00 and we wanted to have a beverage and to relax.  Well everyone was closing right in front of our eyes: the café, the brasserie, the bar . . . they clearly rolled the carpet up.  With time to kill and nowhere else to go, we ended up back in my car hovering over the heater.  There is a price to be paid in order to be authentic.

So why was I on that night bus to begin with?  Well my shower pipes were clogged.  (Unfortunately this event is not uncommon in France.) When I took a shower in my apartment the water no longer drained out.  I had to go to a friend’s place to literally take a normal shower and shave.  The agony of an ordinary distraction.  One that could challenge you in thinking why did you make such as change in your life?  But you have to let it go.  That clog can remain a little longer because there are more villages to discover.

Categories: Everyday Life, Travels

Rude Awakenings in Paris

15 April 2011 3 comments

I find myself in a dubious peril.  I am losing the ability to use pronouns properly – in english.    After being in France for over 9 months and having to re-apply for my yearly visa to work (already?), I trip over my tongue on which side of “we” do I put myself on?  I have consistently had my affinity for French culture and integrated well on certain aspects.   I don’t hesitate to put myself on the French side when it comes to:

We always wait till the meal is over before having our coffee.
We never eat with our fingers unless it is tear off a piece of bread.

Yet there are other times when I clearly state Well that is us Americans for you! during particular discussions of business, economics or politics.  For better or for worse, I have an American passport, an American education and an American desire for change.

I recently passed three weekends in a row in Paris, leaving behind Côte d’Azur and the banality of my job.  It was also through these travels that I became often unsettled that maybe they, the French, are loosing their identity?  And if so, am I truly claiming a new identity?  And yes, this discussion will be an economic one.

I start it off with the familiar presence of Starbuck’s in the City of Light.  I have always had mixed feelings about Starbucks and I won’t deny that I frequented the franchise in Philadelphia.  In some regards they try to hold to liberal, European values such as health insurance for all employees and shutting down all their stores world-wide for a few hours (back in 2009) to retrain their staff on how to make a proper cup of espresso.  Yet we cannot overlook their American consumerism and gluttony.  Later this year they will be offering a larger 4th cup size similar to the famous 7-11 Big Gulp for soda.   (Really?  Do consumers need that much coffee?)  As much it was admirable that Starbuck’s did shut down world-wide to learn again how to make a proper espresso, when is the last time anyone heard of someone ordering one in a Starbuck’s?  It is always Frappachino this and Café Mixto that, with double-chocolate and soy milk that only comes from obscure place like Alberta, Canada.  Plus Starbuck’s is about being on-the-go, known for its drive-thrus and having stores in NYC without any chairs! (what? you wanted to enjoy that coffee?)  So how are the French adapting to Starbucks?  Well as I was enjoying my salade de chevre chaud in a nice Parisian brasserier in the Latin Quarter with my Notre Dame alumni friend, he clearly told me France is Starbuck’s best European market.  The actions of the young Parisians holding their goblets of Starbucks as they catch the next metro only confirmed his words.  Does France really want this?  Do I really want this?  I want Starbucks to stay home, in the U.S.  I left that behind for good reason.  I don’t want them to become part of this “we“.

So far, Nice does not have a Starbuck’s. Yet.  I proudly enjoy my little noisette at the coffee shop down the street as I read the local newspaper.  It is with deep pleasure to know this operation is privately owned and only knows how to make a measly five types of coffee (café, noisette, café au lait, cappuccino and maybe something else).  Don’t even think about ordering it to go, they don’t even have plastic containers for you to do that!  Just sit down and enjoy a coffee in a real, porcelain cup.

Of course it isn’t just Starbuck’s, there is the good old monster of McDonald’s.  It was recently in the paper here in Nice that the mayor celebrated the opening of their 5th McDonald’s with a live jazz band and champaign.  Champaign?  Is it really all that necessary?  France is also McDonald’s best European market in spite of initial political resistance.  I am still perplexed how all this is measured as economic prosperity.  Even more perplexing is how the French with their history of gastronomic cuisines could adapt so easily to these mass-produced edibles.  Is not the McCafé marketing campaign claiming McDonald’s can do a good espresso like Starbuck’s a slap to the Marianne’s face? (Remember, the French call their country by a first name.)

Moi as a French Burner!

Moi as a French Burner!

It isn’t just about food, there is also the culture side of things.  You may have heard of Burning Man, an artistic infusion of people wearing wacky clothing that happens in the middle of desert in the southwest.  Before you know it, you have a little city of free-flowing, free loving Americans creating modern art.  The concept is admirable but if you aren’t into sweating under the sun to build your art with fellow strangers, it shouldn’t be on your vacation list of must see’s before you die.  I did have the pleasure of going to one of the first French Burners in Paris the first weekend I was there.  The French Burners is the official spin-off from the Burning Man on French soil.  It was a one-of-a-kind experience as you had to dress up in a costume to be allowed into the event; normal everyday clothing was banned.  As there were some interesting artists (performance art, dancers, painters, etc.) the evening really become more a rave, those secret dance clubs that would appear in abandoned warehouses during the 90’s.  As much as art is close to my heart and I don’t want to limit these culture events, my mind still wandered to the current dilemma.  I am not sure having everyone for a few hours in a dance hall by the Moulin Rouge is achieving the same thing as a week in the American desert.  That’s them and this is us. Or is it that’s us and this is them?  In any case, French Burners is checked off my list and I will be going back to the Louvre, something the French know how to do.

So what is it that I am missing about the American “we“?  One thing I will admit is having a good Sunday brunch.  I have several memories with my closest friends on the east coast over a casual Sunday brunch.  It is the one time in American culture where one can unwind and reflect on the past week.  In a more unpolished version, a time to catch up on the week’s gossip.  So I miss that opportunity to have a really good omelette with salsa, pancakes with real maple syrup, bacon on the side and a big cup of American coffee.  I heard rumor at work that someone tried to open an American brunch restaurant here in the Côte d’Azur thinking there was enough expats to support it.  Sadly it failed.  So here in Paris, where everything is possible, I met a good French friend at the famous Breakfast In America restaurant where I had to wait in a long for a table as the British guys in front of me drank from their Starbuck’s paper venti sized coffee cups.  I have to say, I was impressed with the restaurant as they exactly knew how to serve an American brunch and got what I was searching for.  The staff was mostly Americans who could speak French which poses a linguistic dilemma on how to place your order (en français?).  I was so tickled pink that I got an American cup of coffee with cream in the classic white mug nostalgic of American diners.  The line was worth the wait as I enjoyed my southwestern omelette and short stack of pancakes on the side.  Interestingly I had realized my transformation by the end of the meal, I no longer liked the American coffee that I thought that I was missing; I barely finish my cup.  Suddenly I realized I wanted to end the meal with my traditional noisette (espresso with a little steamed milk) instead.  I craved it.  Oui, oui.  I stopped being the American “we” for a second.

My last weekend in Paris was spent on the outskirts of Disneyland Paris.  It was a gorgeous campus of a Marriott village that a close American friend rented for a week.  It wasn’t a hotel but a series of apartments with full kitchens, spacious bathrooms and a pond with a white swan.  It really was a beautiful and makes a great first impression.  Of course the clients were mostly families anxiously waiting for Disneyland Paris to open for the day.  After a few excursions to the royal cities of Fontainebleau, Reims and the city center of Paris, the Marriott village’s true American charm shone through.  The first American element is the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere and requires all guests to rent a car to really enjoy France.  They did provide a shuttle to the nearest suburban train station but it was way too far to walk.  The village felt so isolated; so not French.  Then the fact that the apartments were so spacious, including the bathrooms.  Is it not part of the European charm to sit on the toilet and to have the bathroom sink right there in your face?  Not here.  My own shower could have held 3 other people.  Then finally what is the history of this architectural gem of a village (each apartment was designed at least with a unique look to avoid banality)?  Well nothing really.  They were built  for you to financially support the Disney empire next door.  This place wasn’t of a place of royalty, religious inspiration or dedication to the fabrication of something unique . . . it was built to support consumerism, a polished product of the American way.

So am I bitter?  No.  Just sobering up to the reality that is in front of me.  I recently read the book Seducing the French by Richard Kuisel, a historian who attempts to explain the delicate Franco-American relationship since World War II.  France’s ego was devastated by the two World Wars and forced her to take a side role on the world’s stage.  A precious point to comprehend before digesting current French politics.  The author cites brilliant examples of the that’s them and this is us conflict. For one, he describes France’s attempt to outlaw Coca-Cola for supposed health reasons in the 50’s (Coca-Cola was so determined to make money they confided a way to ship their product through Morocco to by-pass French port authorities).  Then later U.S. Government renamed the famous side order to Freedom Fries in the cafeteria (yea, the recent episode with the Iraqi War was actually a second occurrence).  The French always had an overt disdain towards American consumerism primarily because they didn’t want to fall into the same trap.  That book was the catalyst to my current state.  I am witnessing, breathing and living that conflict.  Something we all go through of determining when to claim individual/cultural identity and when to embrace team spirit.  But then, which team are you on?

Personal logistic note: Yes, my blog has been less frequent recently because I still do not have Internet at my apartment.  I appreciate your patience and following but I have taken some legal action to get my telephone line replaced.  Another story to soon share!

Categories: Everyday Life, Travels

Going Across a Border

3 November 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve left France only to come back again. You would think that in my first year living in France that I would celebrate my 36th birthday in full French flare with some exotic cheese that I can’t pronounce, an exclusive bottle of Champaign and the best crème brûlée But I didn’t. I chose instead to be around loud people, marble objects and pizza.  Go figure.

Ventimiglia's Train Station

Ventimiglia's Train Station

I have just gotten back from a northern Italian excursion (also explaining my brief absence from the blog).  One of my closest friends arriving from New York City last week motivated me in taking my first true vacation.  Being in this corner of Europe, you have a lot at your finger tips.  We chose to go across the border into Italy, familiar ground for me but brand new territory for my buddy.  We drove across into Italy to the first major town, Ventimiglia, and caught the train to explore three major Italian cities.  Overall the trip was fantastic.  An excellent choice to spend my birthday enriched in a foreign culture.  I won’t bore you with the tedious details but here is a brief summary of each:

  1. Milan – Our first stop was a major metropolitan hub of Italy.  You had people everywhere and streets lined with the most exclusive names in fashion.  Of course it was mostly window shopping for us.  Milan brought back memories for me as one of my older brothers lived in this city for two years.  I enjoyed seeing all the medley of trolley cars screeching across the streets similar to that of San Francisco.  The Duomo was still majestic as this cathedral took over 400 years to build will all its spirals and statues.  We voted the pizza we ate here to be the best of our journey.  We stayed one brief night here.
  2. Venice – Next we experienced one of the top tourist destinations in the world and now we see why.  Venice is a city that is like none other.  The little streets that are only made for pedestrians lined with several points to waste money or to invest.  We went with the latter and found some nice shoes.  The town was still hustling with tourists and we couldn’t image being there in the heat of July or living there having to deal with tourists day in, day out.  Even though this time was number 3 for me, San Marco Piazza is still an architectural gem.  The weather was absolutely fantastic with the sun shining but still cool enough for a jacket.  Even though we stayed one night, we covered a lot of territory.
  3. Florence – This city was our highlight of the trip and where we stayed the longest.  A true feel for an authentic Italian city.  You had an active modern city taking care of business under the shadows of a past empire.  Florence was a major player in the world of commerce back during the Renaissance allowing it to invest in the greatest artists of that era.  You see the influence everywhere you go.  A proud city holding the funerary monuments of Michelangelo, Brunelleschi , Galileo and Dante and their profound objets d’arts.  As a consequence to its wealth, it also attracted several political conflicts including its version of separation of church and state.  My friend’s childhood desire did finally come true, to see the famous David in the flesh.

Of course we had some excellent pasta dishes and pizza and some not so excellent ones.  We explored a bit of the night life and came back with heavier suitcases than when we started.  The journey ended in true Italian style, a delayed train ride.  We got back to my place a little before 1:00 in the morning and my friend had to be at the airport in a short 5 hours to check-in for his flight back to the States.

Reflection & Affirmation

Reflection & Affirmation

As much as the Italian sites were an inspiration of human development, I had my own personal affirmation during this trip.  My thoughts were solidified when we were driving back from Italy and we crossed the frontier and saw the big sign ‘France’.  I could finally read out loud the road signs with near perfection.  I could finally use my cell phone.  I could finally sleep in a bed that was familiar to me.  I could finally exhale.  I could finally say, I’m home.  It isn’t a scary, uncomfortable or prideful statement.  It is an affirmation that a change has occurred, a decision has been made and one is ready to face the consequences.

This experience takes me back to my days of choosing a college.  I was fortunate enough to be able to visit several of the colleges I was considering.  You walked along campus and you have your internal gauge of whether this place was right for you or not.  As I walked through the streets of Italy, I felt it wasn’t a location I would want to live but a definite joy to visit.  It is that gut feeling that you have whether or not it is right for you.  I could dwell on metaphysical details that lead me to such a decision: the loudness of the Italian people, Italy is slightly behind on the cyberspace landscape, the presence of everything being under construction, the cash society and sluggish diversity trends.  Yet I feel it is more about an inner peace/decision.  An exhale.  I am living in France; I am visiting Italy.

So what’s next? Back to the grind.  My next French bureaucratic goal is to exchange my Pennsylvania driver’s license to a French one!  (shivers) Stay tuned.

Categories: Travels

The Plane Without a Destination

17 October 2010 Leave a comment

Ever been up in the air and not know where you are going? Well I was in that state this weekend.

I was quite excited this weekend.  It was going to be my first true weekend excursion since arriving in the Côte d’Azur.  I had a dear and close friend of mine coming into Paris for his birthday weekend.  He had asked me to come see him but I publicly declined the offer.  Yet secretly I bought an Air France ticket to Paris in order to surprise him.  I can’t fully explain the feeling of having Paris so close.  It is similar to going to Pittsburgh from Philly back in the States.  There is a low-cost airline, Easy Jet, that does Paris-Nice route keeping the price of the tickets low and affordable.  The route isn’t long as you are in Paris in little over an hour.  Consequently doing a weekend run of leaving Friday night and returning Sunday evening is very feasible.  Paris truly has something in the air that energizes you and I believe I so needed this escape to be re-energized.

Within this oasis is a little dirty water. The strikes on the retirement reform in this country are still occurring.  The unions have demanded for continuous and sporadic striking instead of just one unified day of it.  I felt the sting of a French strike on my Friday night flight to Paris.


New meaning to an open-ended ticket . . .

New meaning to an open-ended ticket . . .


I got home from work, quickly changed clothes, hoped the #23 bus and zoomed to the airport full of an adrenaline rush.  Once I reach Terminal 2 of the Nice Côte d’Azur Airport, I went straight for the security line as I had already printed my boarding pass at work.  Paris was so much on my mind that it did not register that the ticketing lines were abnormally long for a Friday evening.  I was too excited to be surprising my friend in a few hours.  After getting through security (which is breeze compared to what American airports demand of you) I looked at the monitor for my gate number.  The keyword annulé was all over the place followed by the word en retard.  The air traffic controllers in Paris were at it again and not letting anyone land in the airports.  Flights were either cancelled or delayed.  I lucked out because my flight was still scheduled to leave as the vast majority of the Paris bound passengers needed to be rerouted, hence why the ticketing lines outside were so long.  My plane was scheduled to leave at 8:00 p.m. sharp but was listed not to leave till 9:25 to then only get delayed further to 10:10.  Sitting there at the airport eating my vacuum sealed chicken rôti sandwich, my spirits were slightly dampened.  It was clear that I would not see my friend to surprise him that night.  My presence to him will have to be postponed to the following morning.  Not the end of the world.

Finally, 10:10 approaches and everyone is hovering around the gate in order to make this flight happen.  Then right as the attendant announces boarding for the flight, she makes it clear we are going to Charles de Gaulle.  Everyone paused with a slight expression of being dumbfounded.  Our boarding passes clearly state Paris Orly, the other Parisian airport.  It was clear if we wanted to get to Paris tonight, we had to adjust and go to CDG, Orly wasn’t taking any more planes.  sigh.  Well, okay let’s go!  It was amazing of the French reaction to all this disruption – they were surprisingly cool and calm about it.  They weren’t happy but they weren’t viscerally agitated either.  These strikes are supported in theory by the majority of the population but the French are smart enough to recognize that something needs to be done.  Everyone is taking this moment in French history in stride.  We board the plane and the pilot promptly reminded everyone to be respectful to the staff because they weren’t the ones on strike.  In any case, shortly after take-off the pilot makes another announcement that we are now back on route to Orly, a change in direction.  Several passengers applauded.  In the midst of distributing beverages among the cabin, the pilot came back over the intercom and concluded that we are rerouted back to CDG, not Orly.  It wasn’t till the beginning of our descend that pilot announced with conviction that we will be arriving in Orly as scheduled.  Again, more applause.  In spite of my record of traveling sagas, I have never been on a place that did not know where it was going like this one.  Finally I was curbside and hailing a taxi at 12:30 a.m., 3 hours overdue.

To make this epic a short story, the rest of the weekend was terrific!  I surprised one friend, saw another old friend, dined with new friends and said rebonjour to my friend Paris.  Surprisingly my flight back to Nice was uneventful.  I am home safe and sound and still smiling.

So when is this strike going to end? I am not sure but the big talk everywhere is the potential fuel storage.  The unions have taken French refineries hostage and the French police are having to get involved to release the trucks.  The CDG airport claims it only has enough fuel for the planes through the end of this week.  The Orly airport is in better shape projecting it has enough to last several more weeks.  If you want further information I encourage you to check out Michael Barrett’s blog for the informative BBC article in English.

So tonight I will sleep in my bed still smiling. You could say it is because of seeing wonderful friends.  You could say it is because of Paris.  You could say it is because of good food and wine.  But you are better of saying it is because I will be getting in a car tomorrow where I am in full control of my destination . . . with a full tank of petrol!

Categories: Everyday Life, Travels